Europe's most beautiful rivers - and how to explore them Tourism
Europe's most beautiful rivers - and how to explore them
Easily the most popular river for cruising, the Rhine has its source in the Alps, becomes navigable at Basel, in Switzerland, and runs north – in parts serving as a border between France and Germany – to meet the North Sea near Amsterdam. Sections of the river flow through steep-sided, sometimes vine-clad valleys; a delightful experience made even more special by the perched castles lining the route. The Unesco-listed Rhine Gorge section is especially dramatic. At eye level medieval towns and villages hug the banks.
Waterside Strasbourg is the largest city on the route. Its old town is a World Heritage Site, though it does not feature on all cruises. Speyer’s 11th-century Imperial Cathedral is magnificent, while Rudesheim delights visitors with its museum of self-playing musical instruments and aristocratic architecture.
At Koblenz, you can climb the statue of Kaiser Wilhelm to view the confluence of the Moselle andcruises conclude (or start) at Cologne, while others continue through the lowlands to Amsterdam. If you find yourself with a few hours to kill in Cologne, the striking Gothic cathedral and many chocolate shops are fine diversions.
Tauck (see below) includes a visit to the Porsche Museum on its Rhine, Swiss Alps and Amsterdam holiday. The museum, at Stuttgart, has more than 80 cars from throughout the brand’s history.
Several towns on the river hold wine festivals in summer or autumn. The one at Boppard (September 25-29) takes place in the market square. On five occasions between May and September a fireworks spectacle, the Rhine in Flames, takes place – some cruise lines offer special departures.
What to book
Something new: Riviera Travel (01283 742300; rivieratravel.co.uk) has a week-long Rhine Cruise to Switzerland on its new ship Jane Austen, which costs from £1,199 per person, with Eurostar travel from London. Includes a tour through the Black Forest.
Something romantic: Sailing primarily on the Rhine, Avalon Imagery II (0800 668 1801; avaloncruises.co.uk) accommodates just 128 passengers. Its eight-day Romantic Rhine cruise between Amsterdam and Basel costs from £1,291 per person, departing on July 16 and including chauffeured pickup.
Something special: Tauck (0800 810 8020; tauck.co.uk) includes a visit to the Porsche Museum on its 10-day Rhine, Swiss Alps and Amsterdam cruise, from £3,287 per person. Also included are a two-night hotel stay in Bern, an exclusive reception at the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, and dinner and entertainment at Ehreshoven Castle.
The Main, Moselle and Neckar
The Rhine has several major tributaries that feature on a wide range of river cruise itineraries.
From the German town of Mainz, the Main travels east through Germany to meet a canal that connects the Rhine and Danube. This route is used for longer-distance cruises of two weeks or more.
The Moselle travels west from Koblenz and past Luxembourg before turning south through Metz, in France. The Neckar extends a short way east from Mannheim. Both are navigable for shorter distances and well worth the effort.
Settlements along the Main feature handsome half-timbered architecture and picturesque squares off cobbled streets. Like the Rhine, the river is lined with castles. Miltenberg can claim Germany’s oldest royal inn, situated on the town’s Old Market Place; Bamberg’s town hall has exquisite frescoes; and Nuremberg is enveloped by 700-year-old city walls.
The big draw along the Moselle valley is Trier. Said to be Germany’s oldest city, it has a collection of Roman remains, including the Porta Nigra city gate and the foundations of an amphitheatre.
Further south at Mannheim, the Neckar splits, conveniently, for the brief cruise to Heidelberg, whose Renaissance castle commands spectacular views.
For more active cruisers, Emerald Waterways offers a hike up to the turreted Wertheim Castle on its Legends of the Moselle, Rhine and Main cruise (see below). There are excellent views of the Main from the ramparts.
Wine and beer festivals are held at towns along these rivers through the warmer months. A popular event is the Middle Moselle Wine Festival at Bernkastel (August 3-7). Nuremberg has a street-food market on the first Thursday of each month.
What to book
Deco delight: Titan (0800 988 5800; titantravel.co.uk) is offering an eight-day Magical Main and Lower Rhine cruise from Nuremberg to Amsterdam aboard the Royal Crown from £1,749 per person, including home departure service and regional flight transfers. With its art deco-style cabins and elegant period décor the Royal Crown recalls the golden age of Thirties cruise travel.
Cruise and stay: On AmaWaterways’ AmaDante (0808 256 8422; amawaterways.co.uk) passengers can bookend a seven-night Europe’s Rivers and Castles cruise along the Moselle, Rhine and Main with three-night stays in Paris and Prague. From £2,829 per person.
Get active: Emerald (0808 231 2706; emeraldwaterways.co.uk) offers anall-inclusive Moselle, Rhône and Main cruise from Nuremberg to Trier which includes a guided cycling tour and, as part of its Emerald Plus excursions, the chance to watch a cooking demonstration in a family-run Gasthof in the Black Forest. From £1,695 per person, departing July 5.
The Danube rises in Germany’s Black Forest and meanders through central and eastern Europe, crossing or skirting 10 countries on its way. Its mouth on the Black Sea is a delta of ecologically significant lagoons, channels and marshes. The river’s navigable length takes in diverse landscapes, including two notable gorges, and flows through the capital cities of Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade. A week-long cruise can be either on the upper or lower Danube. The upper route will usually start in Passau, in Germany, and travel through to Budapest. Lower river cruises start in Budapest and journey through the Balkans.
The Upper Danube first winds through the lush hills of northern Austria. The stretch between Melk and Krems – the 25-mile Wachau Valley – is great for a cycle ride (many ships carry bicycles). Before reaching Vienna, highlights include the imposing Melk Abbey, situated on a rocky outcrop above the town of Melk, and the charming town of Durnstein. Vienna is such a cultural powerhouse that some itineraries include an overnight stop.
Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava, is an often-overlooked gem, while the domed basilica of Esztergom in Hungary is a riverside landmark.
The Lower Danube stretches south to historic Novi Sad and then Belgrade, where a fortress guards the confluence of the Danube and the Sava – a few cruises take in a section of this river. Heading east, the Danube squeezes through a series of gorges known as the Iron Gates. As the river separates Bulgaria and Romania, the scenery becomes more rural.
Your journey may end at Rousse, a handsome town with authentic cafés, about 90 minutes from Bucharest airport. A few cruises continue to Tulcea to enable tours of the Danube Delta, a Unesco-listed area of wetlands.
Telegraph Travel award-winner APT offers an exclusive train journey between Passau and Linz on the Majestic Imperator, a re-creation of a sumptuous 19th-century train used by royalty of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as part of its Magnificent Europe cruise (see below). The journey includes a stop in Salzburg.
Numerous festivals take place during the cruising season. In Budapest, the Buda Castle Beer Festival is on June 11-14 this year, while a similar event will be held in Belgrade (August 17-21). Hungary’s national holiday, St Stephens Day (August 20), is always a lively date in the calendar. In Vienna, the jazz festival this year takes place from June 29 to July 10.
What to book
On the right track: The train journey between Passau and Linz on the Majestic Imperator is one of the Royal Invitation experiences offered by APT (0800 012 6683; aptouring.co.uk), along with concerts in castles, visits to private gardens and after-hours tours.
APT’s cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest departing on June 3 costs from £4,395 all-inclusive.
Strike a chord: Noble Caledonia (020 7752 0000; noble-caledonia.co.uk) is celebrating its 25th year with a seven-night Music on the Danube cruise (from Budapest to Vienna) on the Royal Crown, featuring concerts ashore and on-board performances by the London Festival Opera. From £2,495 per person, departing October 23.
Culture club: Learn how to make apple strudel, attend lectures on the European Union and hear music from Europe’s largest pipe organ in Passau on the Romantic Danube cruise offered by Viking River Cruises ( 0800 319 66 60; viking.co.uk). From £2,295 per person, including free regional flights.
The Rhône and Saône
The Saône has its source in northern France and meets the Rhône – which rises in the Alps – in Lyon. The river then runs south through Provence to meet the Mediterranean near Arles.
The route passes through several wine-producing areas and abundant and historically rich towns and cities. Most cruises take in a portion of the Saône up to Chalon, from where it is a short coach ride to Beaune, home of burgundy wines. Sailing through the heart of Lyon, its turreted basilica high on a hill to the right, is a highlight and many itineraries include an overnight stay in France’s gastronomic capital.
Vienne has an intact amphitheatre and a well-preserved Roman temple, while Tournon has a crumbling 1,000-year-old castle. Avignon, enclosed by mighty walls, is known for its 14th-century Palace of the Popes and the Pont d’Avignon bridge.
Many itineraries include the short drive to the spectacular Ardèche Gorge and one of Europe’s Roman treasures, the remarkably intact Pont du Gard aqueduct.
Visit the culinary school of Paul Bocuse and perfect the art of French cooking on a Connoisseur Collection cruise in Burgundy and Provence with Uniworld (see below). The Bocuse house is two miles north of Lyon on the Saône. You’ll also go in search of the prized “black diamond” at La Rabassière truffle farm.
Lyon has an exhibition dedicated to Yoko Ono until July 10 at its Contemporary Art Museum and an antiques festival between the two rivers on October 6. Gladiatorial battles and horse parades take place during the Arelate Festival in Arles from August 15-24. The two-week Festival jazz à Vienne runs from June 28 to July 13.
What to book
For foodies: Uniworld’s (0808 168 9231; uniworld.com) eight-day Burgundy and Provence cruise from Avignon to Lyon on the SS Catherine costs from £3,069 per person. Connoisseur Collection dates are June 26 and July 10, 17 and 24 2016.
For wine buffs: Sail to the Beaujolais region and enjoy a winemaking demonstration and tasting on an eight-day Lyon and Provence cruise along the Rhône and the Saône. Viking River Cruises (0800 319 6660; vikingrivercruises.co.uk) also offers pre and post-cruise extensions on the French Riviera and in Paris. From £2,795 departing in July (departures until November).
For music lovers: As part of its Idyllic Rhône cruise from Chalon-sur-Saône to Tarascon, Scenic (0808 256 8884; scenic.co.uk) takes its passengers inside the Palace of the Popes in Avignon for an exclusive classical concert in the banquet room. From £2,195 per person.
The Douro twists across the upper Iberian Peninsula, starting south of Bilbao in Spain and meeting the Atlantic at Porto, Portugal’s northern city. The section from the Spain-Portugal border to the coast is navigable by river cruise ships.
In 2001, the Upper Douro Valley was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site for its wine-growing traditions. Qintas (wine estates) and quaint villages are rewarding diversions.
Cruises begin and end in Porto and usually include a coach trip to Salamanca, in Spain, from the turnaround point at the border.
Porto’s pretty old town, which developed on the eastern side of the river, is also Unesco listed and offers good views across the river to the port-wine houses at Vila Nova de Gaia. Some itineraries include an excursion to see the palaces and monasteries of Guimaraes.
An obligatory stop is made at Mateus Palace – its striking façade with multiple pinnacles graces the labels on the famed rosé wine bottles. Port features on all cruises, with visits to the Quinta do Seixo, home of Sandeman, for example.
From Vega del Terrón coaches take guests to Salamanca, one of Spain’s finest small cities. At its heart is Plaza Mayor, one of the best examples of baroque architecture in Spain.
A trip to the historic hilltop village of Castelo Rodrigo is included on Titan’s Enchanting Douro cruise (see below). It was fought over by the Spanish and Portuguese at various times, but now the old walls, castle, clock tower, churches and ruined palace can be enjoyed in peace.
Porto hosts several festivals each year. On May 30-31, Serralves em Festa showcases music, opera, dance, theatre, new circus, literature, cinema, video and photography. On August 15, Assumption Day, the whole city turns out to enjoy street parties, parades and a firework display.
What to book
Cruise and stay: Remember the elaborate barge that carried the Queen during her Diamond Jubilee river pageant in 2012? Saga (0800 096 0082; travel.saga.co.uk) offers a three, or four-night cruise on this ship, the Spirit of Chartwell, coupled with a hotel stay in a pousada (a converted 12th-century monastery). From £1,499 per person.
Wine and dine: Scenic (0800 566 8777; scenic.co.uk) has an 11-day Unforgettable Douro cruise which includes a cocktail event on the terrace of the Douro Museum in Regua and a fine-dining experience in a wine cave in Porto, as part of Scenic Enrich. From £3,245 per person.
Twin cities: Viking River Cruises (020 8780 7900; vikingrivercrises.co.uk) offers a 10-day Portugal’s River of Gold holiday sailing from Porto, which also includes two nights in the capital, Lisbon. From £1,145 per person (departures until December 2016).
From its source in the mountains of the Czech Republic, the Elbe flows north through Bohemia to the North Sea past Hamburg. The most rewarding segment is from Melnik, near Prague, to Magdeburg, not far from Berlin. As a result, Elbe cruises are often bookended by hotel stays in these two cities. Some shorter cruises sail on the Havel, a tributary of the Elbe, sailing under Glienicke Bridge (the “Bridge of Spies”) to Potsdam.
En route are Dresden, Litomerice – established 1,000 years ago – and Wittenburg, along with the striking sandstone landscapes known as the Saxon Alps. Prague, with its wealth of grand architectural monuments and traditional taverns, demands a night or two for further exploration. The river then cuts though a scenic valley characterised by sandstone outcrops and with the magnificent Königstein fortress sited above a bend in the river.
Dresden was severely damaged during the war, but several of its most important buildings, the domed Frauenkirche included, have been lovingly rebuilt. Meissen’s porcelain has been made here for centuries, while Wittenberg is where Martin Luther sparked the Reformation.
In Berlin, time is the only restriction on the number of Wall-related memorials and sites, museums and monuments that can be seen.
Most cruises include a visit to Cecilienhof, site of the Potsdam conference, outside Berlin. The extensive royal park houses several spectacular palaces, including Sanssouci, the summer retreat of the Prussian king Frederick the Great.
French music comes to the Music Festival Potsdam Sanssouci from June 10-26, with concerts, guided tours and operas taking place in the palace and gardens.
Just outside Dresden, from June 24-26, four miles of riverbank become the site for Elbhangfest, with arts events in village squares, parks, villas and riverside meadows. On June 5 and July 3, Berlin will host an Open Air Gallery, where more than 100 artists display their paintings and photographs. The mile-long International Beer Festival will be held from August 5-7. For lovers of jazz, Prague hosts the Bohemia Jazz Fest in the Old Town Square from July 11-19.
What to book
Paddle power: CroisiEurope’s (0208 328 1281; croisieurope.co.uk) new paddlewheel ship, Elbe Princesse sails on an eight-night cruise from Berlin to Prague. From £1,362 per person, excluding flights.
Cruise and stay: Saga (0800 096 0082; travel.saga.co.uk) offers a Berlin to the City of 100 Spires cruise sailing from Prague to Berlin on the MS Johannes Brahms from £1,559 per person. Pre and post-cruise stays are available in both Berlin and Prague. The itinerary includes tours of both cities, plus visits to Colditz Castle and Potsdam.